MARCEL LEFEBVRE was born at Tourcoing in northern France on 29 November 1905. His parents were exemplary Catholics. His father owned a textile factory and was a daily communicant who would assist at Mass at a quarter past six each morning and recite his rosary before arriving at the factory to begin work ahead of his employees. Each evening he would be the last to leave. The welfare of his employees was always a primary consideration for him. The textile industry was to a very large extent dependent upon fluctuations of the market and in 1929, the year of Marcel's ordination, Monsieur Lefebvre was declared bankrupt and the family suffered financial ruin. But with characteristic resolution he set to work and succeeded in building up his business again.
From the age of eighteen he had been a brancardier at Lourdes, work to which he remained faithful throughout his life. He was also a tertiary of the Third Order of St. Francis. When the First World War broke out he joined a society dedicated to saving wounded soldiers and he made frequent trips to Belgium, passing through the crossfire of the French and German armies to bring back wounded soldiers to hospital in Tourcoing. When Tourcoing came under German occupation he organized the escape of British prisoners. He later escaped to Paris and worked for the French Intelligence Service under the name of Lefort for the rest of the war, frequently undertaking the most dangerous missions. All this became known to the Germans who kept his name on record. When Tourcoing was occupied during the Second World War he was arrested and sent to prison at Sonnenburg where he was confined in the most degrading conditions and treated with extreme brutality His companions in prison have testified to his extraordinary courage, his complete resignation to the decisions of divine Providence, and the inspiration he imparted to them all in the midst of terrible suffering. His greatest sorrow was that he had to die without seeing his children again.
The mother of the Archbishop was born Gabrielle Watine. All who knew her considered her to be a saint. The story of her life was written by a French priest in 1948. Gabrielle was celebrated not simply for sanctity but for strength of character. During the absence of her husband in the First World War she directed the factory, looked after her children, cared for the wounded, found time to visit the sick and the poor, and organized resistance against the Germans. She was arrested and subjected to an extremely harsh imprisonment, was distraught at the separation from her children, and became gravely ill. The German Commandant, anxious and embarrassed, promised to release her if she would write a note begging him to pardon her. She refused to do so, being prepared to die rather than compromise on a matter of principle. Fearing the consequences of her death, the Commandant ordered her release and she returned to her children broken in health but unbroken in spirit. When she eventually died after long years of suffering all who knew her testified that her death was the death of a saint, and there are numerous testimonies to favors obtained through her intercession.
Marcel was brought up in a family characterized by the highest standards of piety, discipline, and morality - and it was the example of the parents which above all formed the characters of the eight children. Five of them are now priests or religious and the entire family still remains closely united. As a child Marcel was always good humored and industrious with a particular love of manual work. While a seminary student he installed an electrical system in his parents' home with all the skill of a professional electrician.
After his vocation to the priesthood became apparent he studied in his own diocese and then in the French Seminary in Rome. He obtained doctorates in philosophy and theology. He was ordained priest on 21 September 1929.
His first appointment was to the working-class parish of Marais-de-Lomme, where he was extremely happy and well loved by the parishioners. The impact he made is well illustrated by an incident involving the death of a virulent anticlerical. This type of person is virtually unknown in English-speaking countries, where those who are not religious tend to be indifferent. In most Catholic countries there are people possessed by a fierce hatred for the Church and above all for the clergy, whom they associate with everything that is retrogressive and repressive in life. This particular individual remained inflexible until the end, but just before his death he said that he would see a priest - but it would have to be the young curate as he at least wasn't "one of them"!
In 1932 Father Lefebvre joined the Holy Ghost Fathers and was sent to Gabon as a missionary, where he remained throughout the war. This was, he testifies, one of the happiest periods of his life.
In 1946 he was recalled to France to become Superior of a seminary at Mortain, but he returned to Africa when he was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Dakar on 12 June 1947. On 22 September 1948 he was appointed Apostolic Delegate (the Pope's personal representative) for the whole of Frenchspeaking Africa - a mark of the great confidence placed in him by Pope Pius XII. He was appointed as the first Archbishop of Dakar on 14 September 1955.
Even Mgr. Lefebvre's most severe critics have been forced to testify to the efficacy of his apostolate in Africa. In 1976, a Swiss priest, Father Jean Anzevui, who had been welcomed as a guest at Ecône on a number of occasions, published a most distasteful attack upon the Archbishop, entitled Le Drame d’Ecône. Father Anzevui's assessment of Mgr. Lefebvre's apostolate is all the more remarkable from an avowed opponent. He states:
During his thirty year apostolate in Africa the role of Mgr. Lefebvre was of the very highest importance. His fellow missionaries still remember his extraordinary missionary zeal which was revealed in his exceptional abilities as an organizer and a man of action. He persuaded a number of congregations which had previously shown no interest in the missions to undertake work in Africa. He was responsible for the construction of large numbers of churches and the foundation of charitable works of every kind . . . . they are all agreed in recognizing his magnificent career, his courtesy, his affability, his natural and simple distinction, the dignity of his perfect life, his austerity, his piety and his absolute devotion to any task which he undertook.1
The Testimony of Father Cosmao
On 8 September 1977 Suisse Romande Television devoted a long programme to the Ecône seminary and Mgr. Lefebvre. During the programme there was a discussion between the commentator and Father Cosmao, a Dominican who had been Superior of the house of his order in Dakar for several years while Mgr. Lefebvre was Apostolic Delegate and Archbishop of Dakar. The testimony of Father Cosmao carries considerable weight and it is included here in full together with some comments by Louis Salleron.
Text and commentary appeared in the Courrierde Rome, No. 175, p. 12.
Commentator: Was the prelate (Mgr. Lefebvre) an important person in the Church?
Fr. Cosmao: He had complete power in the Church in the whole of French Africa, from the Sahara to Madagascar. In the Africa which at that time was still French. And he was one of the most important personages in the Church at the end of Pius XII's pontificate.
Commentator: Did he do well, standing for the Church in Africa of that period?
Fr. Cosmao: He did indeed. Christians and priests thought of him as one of themselves. He really stood for that Church at the time. The fact is, it is the Church which has changed, not Mgr. Lefebvre. The Church has changed most profoundly and in particular because she has come to accept what has been happening in Europe since the end of the 18th century, in the train of the philosophy of illuminism and the French Revolution.
Commentator: What, in fact, has been happening?
Fr. Cosmao: Until then the Church made the kings, and by that made the organization of society sacrosanct. When that organization of society no longer corresponded to the actual relations between social groups, it was necessary, in order to transform that social organization, to take away its sacred character, and in so doing to tear the Church away from the position she held in European societies; and finally the Church, in the course of the decades, has come to understand that the criticism of her role under the Ancien Regime was justified, and that it was that very criticism which could renew her from top to bottom. I think that Vatican II, in large part, is the conclusion of that process of growing awareness; and it is that conclusion and the whole process leading it which Mgr. Lefebvre cannot accept, because, to my mind, he is really the representative of that Church which as sure of its truth, its right, its power, and which thought she alone had the power to say how society should be organized. And today Mgr. Lefebvre reproaches the Church not with no longer speaking Latin and no longer offering Mass in the rite of Saint Pius V but, as others put it, surrendering the World on the pretext of a desire to enter it, and subjecting herself to the new world. That is the reproach which issued logically from the Church of yesterday. It is he who is faithful, in a certain way; but his fidelity is to a Church whose attitude in history, as we have come to understand, some more quickly than others, is in contradiction with the demands of the Gospel.
Professor Salleron comments:
"For Fr. Cosmao's candor there can be nothing but praise. In his opinion, it is not Mgr. Lefebvre who has changed but the Church. In a certain way it is Mgr. Lefebvre who is faithful. The fact is that Mgr. Lefebvre's reproach to the church of today concerns not Latin and liturgy primarily but her alliance with the World etc....
Nostalgia? Vague remorse? Provocation? Indifference? It hard to discover Fr. Cosmao's secret feelings. But he bears witness to a fact: the Church has changed, and changed ‘most profoundly,' on that fact we agree - everybody agrees. But we need to know how deep that profound change goes: or better, what is the nature of the change.
It was in 1950 that Teilhard de Chardin wrote to a priest who had left the Church: `Essentially I think as you do that the Church (like any living reality after a certain time) comes a period of "moulting", or "necessary reform." After two thousand years it is inevitable. Humanity is in process of moulting. How can Christianity avoid doing the same? More precisely, I think that the Reform in question (much more profound than that of the 16th century) is no longer a simple matter of institution and morals, but of Faith . . . .'
That conviction of Teilhard's is now widespread. Officially it is rejected, but semi-officially it is propagated in theology, liturgy, catechism, and the Catholic press, with an ambiguity less and less ambiguous-why bother, when you have the `machine' under your control? There is no need to recall the most striking examples: they have appeared time and time again in the Courtier de Rome, La Pensee catholique, Itineraires, the Courtier de Pierre Debray, and many other publications. That the Histoire des crises du clergé français contemporain of Paul Vigneron should, in spite of its moderation, have been passed over in silence or merely mentioned in the semi-official Catholic press, while Le christianisme va-t-il mourir? of Jean Delumeau, which condemns 1500 years of the Church's history and announces, as the Good News, the era of the Liberal Evangelical Church, should have received the CatholicGrand Prix de Littérature, is a 'sign of e times' of tragic dimensions. It is indeed a New Religion which the innovators are promising us. Fr. Cosmao bears witness to the fact. It is a pity he has not told us clearly what he thinks of it."
Vatican II and Retirement
Mgr. Lefebvre was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission of the Second Vatican Council in 1960 by Pope John XXIII - proof that the confidence placed in him by Pope John was no less than that of Pope Pius XII.
On 23 January 1962 he resigned his archbishopric in favor a native African, now His Eminence Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum, who had been ordained by Mgr. Lefebvre, who regards himself as his spiritual son, and who did all in his power to effect a reconciliation between the Archbishop and Pope Paul VI.
On 23 January 1962, Mgr. Lefebvre was appointed Bishop of Tulle in France, upon the personal insistence of Pope John XXIII, despite opposition from the already Liberal-dominated French hierarchy. Then, in July 1962, he was elected Superior-General of the Holy Ghost Fathers (the world's leading missionary order). After some hesitation he accepted this post upon the insistence of the General Chapter and the advice of Pope John. It involved him in travelling all over the world to visit the various branches of the order. There were few other prelates on the eve of the Council with his first-hand experience of the state of the Church throughout the world.
A series of draft documents for the Council Fathers to discuss had been drawn up by scholars selected from the entire world. These draft documents (schemata) were the fruit of an intensive two year effort by 871 scholars ranging from cardinals to laymen. Mgr. Vincenzo Carbone, of the General Secretariat, was able to claim with perfect accuracy that no other Council had had a preparation "so vast, so diligently carried out, and so profound."2 Mgr. Lefebvre writes:
I took part in the preparations for the Council as a member of the Central Preparatory Commission. Thus, for two years I was present at all its meetings. It was the business of the Central Commission to check and examine all the preparatory schemata issued by all the committees. Consequently I was well placed for knowing what had been done, what remained to be examined and what was to be put forward during the Council.
This work was carried out very conscientiously and with a concern for perfection. I possess the seventy-two prepatoryschemata and can state, speaking generally, in these seventy-two schemata the doctrine of the Church was absolutely orthodox and there was hardly any need for retouching. There was, therefore, a fine piece of work for presentation to the Council - schemata in conformity with the Church's teaching, adapted to some extent to our era, but with prudence and wisdom.
Now you know what happened at the Council. A fortnight after its opening not one of the prepared schemataremained, not one! All had been turned down, all had been condemned to the wastepaper basket. Nothing remained, not a single sentence. All had been thrown out.3
During the course of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Mgr. Lefebvre was one of the leaders of the International Group of Fathers (Coetus Internationalis Patrum) which sought to uphold the traditional Catholic faith. The role of Mgr. Lefebvre during the Council will not be discussed in this book as it is fully documented in his own book, A Bishop Speaks, and in my own account of Vatican II, Pope John's Council. The texts of Mgr. Lefebvre's interventions, and a good deal of supplementary information, are now available in French in his book,J'Accuse le Concile. An English translation of this book is pending. All that needs to be stated here is that Mgr. Lefebvre, in his criticisms of the reforms which have followed the Council, and of certain passages in the documents themselves, is not being wise after the event. He was one of the very few Fathers of Vatican II who, while the Council was still in progress, had both the perspicacity to recognize deficiencies in certain documents and the courage to predict the disastrous results to which these deficiencies must inevitably give rise.
By 1968 the General Chapter of the Holy Ghost Fathers had become dominated by a Liberal majority which was determined to reform the Order in a sense contrary to Catholic tradition. Mgr. Lefebvre resigned in June of that year rather than collaborate in what would be the virtual destruction of the Order as it had previously existed. He retired to Rome with a modest pension which was just sufficient to rent a small apartment in the Via Monserrato from some nuns. After a full and active life devoted to the service of the Church and the glory of God he was more than content to spend his remaining years in quietness and prayer. In the light of subsequent events, Mgr. Lefebvre's unobtrusive retirement is a fact upon which considerable stress must be laid. Some of his enemies have accused him of being proud and stubborn, a man who could not accept defeat. He is portrayed as a proponent of an untenable theological immobilism totally unrelated to the age in which we are living. Although this untenable theology was defeated, discredited even, during the Council, Mgr. Lefebvre's pride would not allow him to admit defeat. The Seminary at Ecône, it is maintained, is his means of continuing the fight which he waged so unsuccessfully during the conciliar debates.
But Mgr. Lefebvre's retirement proves how baseless, malicious even, such suggestions are. Those who have met him know that he is not a man who will fight for the sake of fighting - he has always been a realist. No one could have compelled him to resign as Superior-General of the Holy Ghost Fathers - he had been elected for a term of twelve years. But he could see quite clearly that the Liberals dominated the General Chapter; that they were determined to get their way at all costs; that resistance on his part could only lead to unedifying division. "Je les ai laissés à leur collégialité," he has remarked. "I left them to their 'collegiality'."4
1. J. Mzevui, Le Drame d'Ecône (Sion, 1976), p. 16
2. See The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, p. 22.
3. A Bishop Speaks, p. 131. The story of how the Liberals managed to consign a preparation "so vast, so diligently carried out, and so profound" to the wastepaper basket is told in detail in Chapter V of Pope John's Council.
4. J. Hanu, Non, Entretiens de Joss Hanu avec Mgr. Lefebvre(Editions Stock, 1977), p. 189 (161). Now available in English asVatican Encounter (Kansas City, 1978), available from the Angelus Press and Augustine Publishing Co. Wherever this book is referred to the page reference will be to the French edition with the equivalent page in the English translation following in parentheses.